"Far From Heaven"
with Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haybert.Written and directed by Todd Haynes. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Produced by Stephen Soderbergh and George Clooney.
Review by Tom Savage
This marvelous, many-faceted movie takes place in a suburban pseudo-Paradise drenched in color and period movie music. It's set in the Norman Rockwell world that everybody who moved from the cities to the suburbs after the Second World War was expecting to find and never achieved because, except on that artist's canvasses and on the covers he did for magazines, it really and truly existed nowhere. Throughout the Fifties (the film is set in the late Fifties) the middle classes and upper middle classes were sold on this illusion by television shows of the time as well. Sadly, the father who knew best turned out to know nothing. The couple at the center of the movie (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) seem to have it all, including a black, male neighbor who functions part-time as their gardener. Later Mrs. Whitaker (Moore) is drawn to this man, a widower with a small daughter. Is this historically accurate for the period in question? I don't know. I was ten at the time and grew up in Greenwich Village, where interracial relations were taken for granted. Apparently, suburban Connecticut was different. Dennis Quaid plays a happily married, suppressed homosexual/bisexual man. The black widower neighbor is enacted well and with dignity by Dennis Haybert. Mr. Whittaker (Quaid) has two children, one boy and one girl. Thus, he apparently once found enough passion to involve himself with his wife, but apparently, does no longer. The wife catches hilm in his office having sex with another man. In pre-Stonewall America, it must be remembered, this was a bigger deal than it might be now. At this point in the film, there is an interesting use of light, shadow, and color. Quaid agrees to see a shrink in order to try to overcome his"problem." In those days weren't gay men subjected to shock therapy? It happened to the late, gay poet John Wieners. In the sessions with the shrink there is a discussion of heterosexual conversion. Nowadays, of course, this phrase is only used in the claustrophobic sanctum of the Christian Fundamentalist right wing. Was anybody ever really "converted"? Today, gay rights activists say no. Electroshock and "hormonal balancing therapy" are mentioned in this psychiatric session. It may be difficult for those of you who are too young to remember anything before, say, 1975, that in pre-Stonewall America, homosexuality was viewed as a psychiatric illness. The Quaid character feels he has no control over his obsession. After the shrink, the Whittakers go to an opening of an art show run by a reputedly gay art dealer. It's a modern art show; mostly, it looks like Picasso and Miro. Here, Mrs. Whitaker encounters the black neighbor again. The struggle for Afro-American rights plays an odd though somewhat more straightforward role in this movie than the problem of gay rights which, of course, in this era had barely surfaced, even to the people affected by anti-gay prejudice. Little Rock is referred to (1957?) Later, President Eisenhower is shown on television still in office. There is also a passing reference to Senator Joseph McCarthy. It took me about half to three quarters of an hour to figure out exactly when this movie was situated in time. Early fifties or late Fifties makes a difference, especially with reference to the struggle for black civil rights, but also regarding the struggle for gay rights to come. Shortly after the art opening, the Quaid character tries to force himself to have sex with his wife and fails. His response to his own hangups and inadequacies is to smack her so hard on the face that it leaves a bruise or scar. At this point, I thought to myself"Oh no, another gay villain in a Hollywood film." (There is a long history of gay characters being forced to be villains. There was a book about this. It was such a pattern for decades that most sensitive gay or bisexual moviegoers, like myself, object to this pattern when we are presented with it yet again, at this late date.) Are all suppressed gay men supposed to be wife-batterers? In reality, most wife-beaters are straight, I believe. Shortly thereafter, the noble black man appears to help Mrs. Whittaker. An intelligent friendship develops between this intelligent, sensitive black man and this suburban, apparently liberal, white woman. Circa pre-1960, is this a realistic depiction? I don't know. I wasn't there. It might be. If she's so liberal as to accept and defend her friendship with her black neighbor, why can't she adjust to her husband's bisexuality? This would perhaps be too much for pre-1960's anywhere in America. She is, of course, chastised by her suburban, white, female peers for this interracial relationship (they don't know about her other problem), and this, of course, feels right for the period of the film. The suppressed gay husband forces her to fire the black gardener because of other people's malicious gossip. The struggle for racial integration in its nascent stages is played out in this film in an unusually intelligent way, without preaching, false stereotypes on either side, or falsely inflated heroes on any level. As if a holiday cruise could somehow set things right between them, the Whittakers take a cruise or vacation to Bermuda where the husband locates and becomes obsessed with a cute, young boy while ostensibly trying to rekindle things with his wife.
While the Whitakers are away, the black ex-gardener's daughter is beaten up by some white schoolboys who are then expelled from school. This confrontation takes place over the black gardener's supposed relationship with Mrs. Whittaker. This, too, seems believable to me. Children are vicious in any time and any place to one another, particularly when dealing with perceived differences, whether they be racial or of another nature. This is a sad reality of childhood most of us would rather forget and it is well-depicted here.
Mr. Whittaker (Dennis Quaid) admits to his wife that he's in love with the cute young boy he met in Bermuda as soon as the Whittakers return home. At this point, the already shattered Norman Rockwell paradise universe falls completely apart. Divorce proceedings are initiated.
At this point, the noble black man decides to move himself and his child to Baltimore. Social pressure from his own people as well as from whites is driving him away, so he says. Whether or not it is realistic that Afro-Americans in such a community at such a time would not only fail to back him up, but actually exert further pressure upon him to leave, I have no way of knowing. I am a Caucasian intellectual American born in 1948 who grew up in the Bohemian community of Greenwich Village. It would have to be for someone from the Afro-American community to decide whether or not this plot twist is realistic who happened to be alive and an adult functioning American at that time. Mrs. Whtttaker (Julianne Moore) offers to join him and his daughter in Baltimore. The noble black man says no.
Partially through a superb performance by Julianne Moore, the white wife is the center of this movie, not the gay husband.
With reservations based mostly on my limited experience of the social milieu and time period in which this film is set, I would posit that this is a wonderful film which deals with social and emotional terrain heretofore covered in no Hollywood film which I have seen.
Mrs. Whittaker meets the noble black man and his child at the train as he leaves for Baltimore. They wave goodbye. The film ends here.
It is far from incidental that this movie is aided and abetted by one. of the best film scores by a master film composer from this period, Elmer Bernstein.
On a second viewing, it became clear to me that the Quaid character (Mr. Whittaker) isn't another gay villain. His life is resolved almost unbelievably well and peacefully. He gets his divorce and continues his relationship with the cute, young man he met in Bermuda. This finish is remarkable but no doubt such happy outcomes did happen for gay men who"came out" if only to themselves and to their lovers in their middle age way back then. Bill Kushner, one of our finest gay poets, and a gay poet of a generation that was already adult at the same time as this film is set, assured me that this outcome was totally believable for the late Fifties. When I described the film's ending to him, Bill also reminded me that this film, Far From Heaven, is also apparently based on the Hollywood films directed by Douglas Sirk at that time. As I have never seen one of these films, I am grateful to Bill, as well, for this information.